Diner was one of the first DVDs I ever bought. It came packaged in a big set sold at Sam’s Club. I didn’t really know anything about the movies in the set and looking back now, the majority of them were bad. Terrible. Atrocious. Heinous. The boxes were cheap, cardboard with a thin sheet of plastic holding the disc in place. The art on them looked misaligned and uninspired. But they were movies. They were round 12 cm discs that contained moving images that could be played on my newly opened DVD player and I wanted them ever so badly. I can hardly remember the other films in the box (I think Night Shift was one of them), but Diner stood out to me, even at the young age of 12. The film follows a group of friends, one of whom is about to get married. That’s it. There is no more plot than that. It’s a film about nothing (sound familiar?), simply a movie about guys coming to grips with having to grow older. I won’t put up the bad trailer for the film (it has an embarrassing movie guy narration) instead I will put up an early scene from the film.
The film stars Kevin Bacon as Fen, Mickey Rourke as Boogie, Steve Guttenberg as Eddie, Daniel Stern Shrevie, Tim Daly as Billy, Paul Reiser as Modell, and Ellen Barkin as Beth (Shrevie’s wife). All of these actors were at the beginnings of their careers. No humiliating roles behind them, no baggage, only fresh faced hopes of becoming stars. The focus is spread throughout the cast, without there being a lead actor. It seems as if they all get an equal amount of attention as the film progresses (save for Paul Reiser, unfortunately). The film is comprised of conversations between the characters. Some are quick fire ones like the Sinatra vs. Mathis debate, which kills me (especially when Eddie demands that Modell “Just say the words!” and Boogie’s response to the debate featured in the video below). Other conversations are longer and heartbreaking, like Shrevie seeing the pitfalls of his marriage while speaking to Eddie on his upcoming nuptials. I’ve seen the film plenty of times since that first showing in my living room 11 years ago and I have found myself relating to it in every possible way despite it being set in the 50s. I can honestly say that I have seen myself as those character in my day to day life, some way more than I would like to. One of the most devastating themes of the film is the lack of ambition in the smartest of characters. From Shrevie’s obsession and connection to music (this film has an amazing soundtrack) to Fen’s waste of talent to Billy’s decisions about his love life have all deeply affected me in one way or another.
Barry Levinson, who wrote and directed the film, took a lot of risks in making it. First, the film is completely conversational, exploring the depths of manhood without demeaning or glorifying the characters. Second, its not the typical 80s fare, there are no huge twists or chase scenes. Its a quiet film that takes a look at a very short period in these character’s lives. Its also incredibly introspective. While the character’s interests are boiled down to music, sports, gambling and drinking, Levinson makes it clear that this is not all they are (even if the character insist it’s true). Scenes where character reveal themselves to each other are delicately handled, emphasizing the ingeniously crafted script. In addition to this careful writing, Levinson encouraged ad lib between the actors in order to create a more authentic atmosphere between the characters. These aren’t people playing roles and spouting rehearsed dialogue, its a bunch of guys being guys. As messed up a they all are, I always wanted friends like them.
The film has influenced me heavily, both in my writing and speech patterns. I still refer to pretty girl as “death” and mention the Chisholm Trail every once in a while. The film has also influenced other artists as well. It’s hard not to see comparisons to Seinfeld (a show about nothing) or the diner scenes in Tarantino movies (where pop culture is at the forefront). There are too many moments in Diner that fill me with immense joy to be able to talk about in this post. I mean it would take me days to even explain the nuances of Fen’s character. I could go on and on about the why the dick in the popcorn gag is more than just a cliche or why gravy fries are the best thing ever (EVER!). I could recite my favorite lines ad nauseum (possibly the most important moment in the film for me is this interaction. Dancer: Got a girl? Billy: Not really. Just in love. Dancer:Does the girl know? Billy: Yeah, I told her about it. Dancer: Told? Why don’t you show her?) Diner is a powerful film that leaves a long lasting impression. Go out and get your hands on it.